The Difference Between SEO and SEM

There are a ton of acronyms in digital marketing that can get downright confusing for those without a background in this stuff. One that I hear get mixed up constantly is SEO and SEM. They get confused because they both pertain to appearing on the search engine results page (Google, Yahoo, Bing) when a user is searching for a product or service that you sell. Each one is an important piece to your overall strategy, however both are very different.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is an initiative that makes your website more attractive to the search engines and users who visit your site.

Google rewards only the best sites with the highest page ranks when a user enters a search. So what makes a good site?

Think about your own experience online. Do you like sites that load fast or slow? Do you like it when a site is easy to navigate on your mobile device, or when you have to pinch or “un-pinch” so you can actually see the thing? When it comes to content, do you like to find rich content that keeps you engaged, or do you like to be disappointed by high level boilerplate content that requires you to pick up the phone and talk to somebody knowledgeable?

I think you get the picture. And Google gets it too. That’s why they reward great sites and banish the others to pages 2, 3, and beyond. You may even be doing a decent job with your SEO, but it’s all relative to the other sites you’re competing with. There are always ways to make your site load faster and there’s always more frequent and better quality content you can publish. That’s just a few of the “on-site” components of SEO.

What’s also important are the “off-site” tactics that help your ranking, such as citation building. Google doesn’t just trust you because you say you’re a great business on your website – it wants to validate you are who you say you are by looking at other sites where you’re mentioned. Whether you received a write up from your local newspaper, or you have a business listing on highly regarded sites like or Angie’s List, Google looks at all this before establishing your page rank.

Good SEO is a consistent set of practices designed to boost your listing on the search engine results page. I say consistent because if you ever stop doing SEO when you land on Page 1, you’re always one algorithm change away from getting all the leads you can handle to wondering why your phone stopped ringing. Reports say that Google changes its algorithm between 500-600 times each year!

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is also known as Pay Per Click (PPC), and Google Adwords. This is paid placement on Google. You can see which listings on Google are paid ads because the site will show a small “Ad” icon next to the URL. Every time one of these ads are clicked, the advertiser is charged anywhere from less than a dollar, to over $100 for that click. The best part about SEM is that there is no waiting for your site to rank. Once you set up your campaign and hand over your credit card to Google, your ad will start showing.

Sounds great, and it certainly can be, however I’ve seen a ton of wasted money on SEM programs.

First, if you plan to go at this alone directly through Google, you should take the time to study their training modules. This will help you avoid some big mistakes like using Broad search types on all your keywords that may bring you lots of traffic, but folks who have no need for your products or services.

You’ll burn through your daily budget before a good lead even sees your ad.

Next, consider if you really have the time to optimize the campaign after its launched? You’ll still need to dedicate time and energy into testing different targeting options, keyword selection, landing page selection, ad copy, bidding strategy, campaign structure, etc.

So then you decide to outsource it. Great decision, but then there are even more landmines! What does that firm charge you to manage it? You have to ask, because many will just quote you the total that you pay them. For example, if you’re quoted $1,000/mo for Google Adwords, the firm selling you that program isn’t going to send all $1,000/mo to Google, unless they’re managing your budget for free.

Behind the scenes, they may be taking over 50% of that $1,000/mo to manage the program for you, leaving only $500/mo in actual ad spend. Spread that out over 30 days, and you only have $16/day working for you on Google. Depending on your business, that may only be a few clicks per day, and we know most clicks don’t turn into customers.

So regardless of your budget, you HAVE to ask “If I pay you $1,000/mo, how much will actually be spent on Google?” If your salesperson doesn’t know or can’t give you a solid answer, find another firm that can.

There are many large internet marketing firms that do a decent job managing SEM for local businesses, but many are in that 50% management fee range, which is just too high.

As a smaller agency and certified Google Partner, we’re able to keep our fees low and provide outstanding personalized service that drives meaningful results to you. Contact us today to learn more about our Google Ads Management service.

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